On New Year’s Day 2009, Mao Asada and her father visited Atsuda Jingu [Atsuda Shrine] in Nagoya. It was very crowded, so they didn’t make it to the heart of the shrine, but Mao enjoyed stopping at all the stalls and eating food from the street vendors.
Throughout the rest of January, Mao Asada performed in a number of ice shows—Stars on Ice, the Japan Super Challenge, the Nagoya Figure Skating Festival, etc. Some of the fans on the Mao Asada Fan Forum expressed concern that Mao was overextending herself; in fact, some of them thought she should skip the upcoming Four Continents Championship altogether.
Stars on Ice (January 2009)
Although I agreed that there was a risk of injury/exhaustion, I wasn’t worried. After all, Mao had done all those shows in 2008 AND gone to Four Continents, and she had done just fine at Worlds (even with the ankle injury beforehand!). And since 4CC was the test competition for the Olympics, I thought it would be a good chance for Mao to become familiar with the Olympic arena, as well as the logistics of getting there, adjusting to the time difference, etc.
But as I wrote last year, the 2009 Four Continents Championship did not go as expected. (Please see here for my detailed writeup.) There were all sorts of unexpected problems. The rink in the Pacific Coliseum was an NHL-sized one instead of an Olympic-sized one, her coach, Tatiana Tarasova, inexplicably was not there, and Mao seemed to be having problems with her jumps.
In the short program, Mao made multiple mistakes, leaving the door way open for Yu-Na Kim. And Yu-Na Kim, perhaps still feeling the sting of losing to Mao at home in Korea, charged right through it. She skated right after Mao and laid down a perfect program, garnering a huge applause and a new record score.
Mao in her blue ‘Clair de Lune’ costume
(This was the only time she used it.)
Mao ended up 6th after the short, almost 15 points behind the leader (Yu-Na Kim). And I was crushed.
I feebly tried to assure myself that Mao could fight her way back from this; I thought of similar situations at 2007 Worlds and the 2008 Grand Prix Final, but I was really demoralized.
Thankfully, Mao Asada is a skater that never leaves you in despair for too long. Perhaps that’s why I’ve managed to stay a fan for so long: because every time she stumbles or fails, she does something to give you hope again.
And so it went in the long program. It was one of Mao’s weaker performances—she popped the opening triple axel, and she doubled a triple toe loop, but the amazing part was that by the end of the night, it was the winning free program.
Yes, after Mao skated, skater after skater proceeded to make all kinds of mistakes, and somehow, despite her dumbed-down program and a few misses, she still won the long program. It was not nearly enough to win the competition, but it was enough for a medal.
Mao Asada and Shanetta Folle in the kiss ‘n’ cry
And more importantly, it made me think, “Wow, a struggling Mao Asada with two visible errors is still better than Joannie and Yu-Na with one visible mistake each!”
After the short program, I had been devastated, but after the long program, I was elated. “Getting bronze here will definitely push Mao to get gold at Worlds!” I thought.
But what exactly had happened to Mao Asada?
A number of media sources speculated that the reason for Mao’s poor condition and her decision to lower the difficulty of her program were due to an injury. But when Mao was questioned, she completely denied having an injury, and instead said, “I know what the problem is. It’s a secret.”
Not until Mao Asada, Brilliant Eighteen was released, did I find out what that secret was.
It was not an injury; it had nothing to do with Tarasova not being there; it was simply a lack of motivation, and some burnout. Something Mao had never experienced before.
Before Four Continents, when Mao was debating whether she should even go to 4CC, Tarasova sent her this message [translated from the Japanese, as printed on pg 78 in the Mao Asada first photo book]
To my beloved Mao:
If you ask me why I want skaters to go to competitions even when they're going through a tough time, it's because if they can give a wonderful and strong performance at that kind of time, then their rivals will grow to fear them.
I even ordered Yagudin to work hard to win every competition.
No matter if he was going through a tough time.
This desire to try your best not to lose—you have to have it not just for yourself, but for your rivals too.
This feeling will become a powerful psychological weapon against your rivals, and it will translate into confidence for you.
I know you’re a strong person.
The moment that you skate, can you focus and do those things that you haven’t been able to do up to now?
That is my question for you.
You may think that you’re not very good at the short program, but I don’t want you to feel doubts about it.
I believe that your decision will be the right decision.
Tarasova may have wanted Mao to win to “strike fear into the hearts” of the other skaters, but that is not how Mao Asada thinks. She says that she “hates to lose,” but I think that more than winning, she wants to be the best skater that she can be. Making her rivals afraid, destroying them, is not her goal. Every competition is a chance to battle with herself, a chance to test her limits, a chance to fulfill the challenging goals she has set.
So at this point in time, I’m not surprised that Mao Asada found herself lacking motivation. After all, she had accomplished all of her goals for the season. Salchow reintroduced? Check. Lutz edge fixed? Check. Two triple axels rotated in the free program? Check. Third straight National Championships title? Check. What more was left for her to do?
But Mao learned her lesson.
In Mao Asada, Brilliant Eighteen, Mao reflected on her 2009 4CC experience and said:
I couldn't believe it myself, but for the first time in my life, I didn't want to go to the competition. I wasn't skating well at all, and I had a problem with motivation. At any rate, I couldn't control my emotions/thoughts. Tatiana-sensei scolded me. 'Don't think about anything other than going to the competition, and pull yourself together.'
She also added (pg 94):
I realized that I couldn't let my motivation fall like that. This is something that Tatiana-sensei pointed out later.
The truth is, before 4CC, Sensei and I weren't seeing eye-to-eye. I couldn't communicate my thoughts at all. And I guess, because of that, I wasn't able to pull myself together.
One more thing--I think the fact that Worlds was coming up soon also had an influence...The competition was coming closer and closer, but I couldn't improve my skating condition, and I became a little nervous. 4CC became a good learning experience for me. In the end, you have to overcome everything by yourself.
You have to do the things you are supposed to do. I think that is a really important thing.
So in the end, Mao's difficult experience leading up to 4CC became a lesson for her. And I think this is another reason why I am a Mao fan. Although it can be heartbreaking to watch her make mistakes or fail to meet her goals, I also see her learning from mistakes and growing. Before my eyes, I feel that she is evolving from that sweet, innocent, adorable girl into a mature, strong, and wise young woman. And that certainly has been rewarding to watch!
Soon after Four Continents, Chuukyou University opened a new sub-rink, the Rainbow Rink, which was nicknamed "Miki and Mao" in honor of the two World champions. Mao, Miki Ando and Takahiko Kozuka (among others) performed in the opening ceremony. Mao’s former coach (but ever-faithful mentor), Machiko Yamada, acted as MC.
Rainbow Rink opening ceremony/performance
(See more news vids from the opening ceremony on this page.)
When Coach Machiko interviewed Mao, she said, “Before the Four Continents Championship, you said, ‘I can’t get motivated! Sensei, what should I do?’ You’ve never suffered like that before, have you? But, you were able to get (good) scores, so from now on, I think that you’ll be able to try your best any time. Do your best!”
Mao said, “My performance at Four Continents was not my best, so I really felt strongly that I want to try my best for the World Championships. I absolutely want to give a good performance at Worlds.”
So as I had expected, Mao's poor showing at 4CC had given her the motivation to work hard for Worlds. She had found that fighting spirit again and would take Worlds by storm!
Or so I hoped...